Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Touch Here or There

Anyone who has ever cared for a senior citizen on a daily basis will tell you, if he's honest, that it's dadgum hard. In fact, it's exhausting and frustrating. For the caregivers AND the senior. For the caregivers, it taxes their patience and energy. For the senior, it robs them of their security and independence. When we're having a particularly difficult day with Papa T., I try to remind myself that he doesn't want to be weak and dependent, and I try to imagine what it's like to walk in his aged shoes. It must be scary to lose your memory, and I can only imagine how frustrating it is to lose your ability to do simple math or to see or hear clearly. I fully understand why there are days when he's downright difficult or surly. I'd probably be mad too, if I couldn't find the bathroom when I know it's just yards away in a house I've lived in for years. Those thoughts and a deep breath (or two or three) help me to find the patience I need on those troubling days, which don't outnumber the good days, but they are certainly gaining ground. There are enough of them that when an especially good day rolls around it seems special.

Monday night, I sat with Papa T. so Hubby could have a poker night with his buddies. It had been weeks since Hubby and the boys had gotten together for their "me" time, and it was something Hubby needed desperately. For a few hours, I sat with Papa T., and we ate dinner and caught up on some routine things, like trimming his fingernails and reading aloud the monthly magazine about the University of Kentucky Wildcats, the Cats' Pause. He's a huge Big Blue fan, so he soaks up every word of that magazine. The reading aloud duties fall to me because Hubby and Teen Angel hate reading aloud, and Papa T. says they don't enunciate well. Because I don't often have many opportunities to read to him, we usually have more than one edition to read per session, and it takes a while. So, for quite a while we read stats and articles about the players, most of which I have little interest in but have learned quite a bit about during these reading sessions. It's starting to rub off a little, I think. Don't tell anyone, but I flipped the TV over to the game the other night to catch the tail end of it. I'd like to pretend that it's just because I wanted to know the outcome so I could talk intelligently about it with Papa T., but alas, I really just wanted to see them win. I've also been watching the Murray State games in snippets, too, but I'm blaming that on the fact that I'm a Murray alum. Surely, I'm not falling under the spell of this thing they call college basketball?

Anyway, we eventually got around to trimming his fingernails, which also falls to me because Hubby can't seem to tell the difference between the nail and the nail bed. (I like to sum up my care giving duties as the Three F's: food, finances and fingernails.) Papa T's fingernails grow like crazy, so he and I have a little trimming session every couple of weeks. I pulled an ottoman up to his recliner and grabbed his hand. The skin was soft and wrinkled, signs of someone who retired from a desk job years ago. They've long lost the traces of his years spent working on the farm. I pulled his hand close and started working, and as I did, it suddenly occurred to me that it was one of the few methods of touch he receives on a regular basis. Oh, he gets touch through hugs from Teen Angel but he's not one to hug adults. We hold his arm when trying to lead him somewhere, but we don't do a lot of that because we and he are trying to keep him as independent as possible for as long as possible, and that means sometimes letting him find his own way. Mama J. is gone, and so is her touch for him. His isolation has left him in an environment where the contact with people's voices, presence and touch is gradually diminishing. It was a light bulb moment for me, and I got lost in that moment as he told me a story I no longer heard, and Wheel of Fortune rumbled softly on the TV behind me.

I thought about him. I thought about age. I thought about my age and how quickly I will be in his shoes. And I wandered if the same thing will happen to me. And I wondered how often I forget that he needs the touch of human hands, arms and faces. I forget that too often, I think. I refocused on our conversation, slowing down the work, realizing that it wasn't a job that should be rushed. I took my time, turning each finger gently, holding his hand for as long as possible and filing his nails with great care when I was finished with the clippers. Filing for much longer than necessary really. And I listened.

Our conversation drifted to the trip to Europe with Teen Angel, and he started asking me to describe things there he'd never seen and would never be able to see. "What's the Mona Lisa like?" he softly asked. "Smaller than you'd think," I said. I described the room in the Louvre in which it hangs, the crush of people squeezing in to see her behind the glass case and her delightful smile. I told him of the beauty of the Venus De Milo and how close you can stand to her. I described the construction of the Eiffel Tower and what it's like to stand at the top and witness a rainbow stretching from one side of Paris to another. He asked about the other art museums, and I told him about the beauty of the Orsay and the wonder of Monet's Water Lilies at the L'Orangerie. I tried to find words adequate enough to relay the beauty of the stained glass in St. Chappelle Cathedral and how it takes your breath away to stand in the midst of it. I let him ask the questions, and I added tidbits I thought he'd find interesting. He nodded from time to time with an occasional, "Hmm," or a smile. At some point, I told myself, "You will always remember this evening, Hula. When he's gone and even before then, you will remember this conversation." We wrapped up when his overnight sitter came through the door, bustling in with her bags and shouting greetings from the front door all the way into the den where we sat. The magic of the evening was broken with her arrival.

In the past week or so I've been trying to decide what I want to give up for Lent. I've considered several things and haven't been able to settle on one particular item. It certainly wasn't going to be cake. I did that one time, and it was the longest month of my life. I couldn't concentrate on being God-like because I was too busy trying not to gnaw off my fingers. Deprivation does not work for me. Besides, that's not really what Lent is about. As I listened to the Ash Wednesday service at lunch today it finally occurred to me that I shall focus on the human touch throughout Lent. Using it to connect with people who really need it, especially Papa T.. It could be as simple as the grasp of a hand, a touch on the arm when talking or just a pat on the back. I'm not talking about invading someone's space or making him feel uncomfortable. I'm just thinking that it wouldn't hurt to be more affectionate with those who seem to really need it, especially the elderly or the lonely. Perhaps with enough practice it will become a habit. And perhaps it will give me more patience with Papa T. And Hubby. And Teen Angel. I think it's important at this stage we're in right now, and I'm not sure I can adequately explain why. It's significance is a little harder to describe than the Mona Lisa.


Linda said...

What a beautiful and poignant story you have woven for us today. I am sure this will provide everyone who reads it with much food for thought. I wish you success in your choice for Lent and admire your ability to recognize the importance of touch. I think we forget it all too easily. We know that babies don't thrive without it - only makes sense that as people age, they still need it. Thank you!

oreneta said...

You are so right about touch, and how seniors can be so deprived of it. I remember spending 6 months in a new town studying and I didn't know a soul, I used to take baths simply to have the sensation of touch over my skin, and I'd hold coins cupped in my hand so that the staff in a store had to touch me to take them out. Gee, that sounds weird, but I went from working with a kagillion toddlers a day (you want touch, that's the job for you) to nothing. Nada. Res.

It was tough. Papa T must be appreciating it, even if he doesn't say.

Jan n Jer said...

What a sweet touched upon a very important thing we all need in touch n be touched!!!! A big hug or slight pat on the back or arm can make a persons day! Great post!!!

the parishioner who doesn't do anything said...

Thank you, Hula. You touch me with every post.